Hadrian’s Wall runs 80 Roman miles and is under 2,000 years old, as 2022 will mark the second millennia since its construction. This is perhaps one of England’s most significant historic sites – all in a country full to bursting with beautiful heritage.
Hadrian’s Wall was a massive undertaking, spanning 73 (modern) miles from Newcastle to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. The wall fortifies what would have been Roman Britain in modern-day England by creating a defensive boundary at the narrowest point of the island. This massive monument was built to separate the “civilised” Roman colony from the “barbaric” tribes of the Picts in the north (present-day Scotland).
Because it’s such a large monument, there are multiple places to see the wall. If you plan to walk Hadrian’s Wall Path, you will either start at Wallsend in Newcastle-on-Tyne, or at other end, Bowness-on-Solway on the edge of the Solway Firth.
Meandering through some of the most stunning landscapes of northern England, Hadrian’s Wall once delineated the outer frontier of one of the greatest empires in Europe: the Roman Empire.
Started as a republic in 509 BC and forged into the Roman Empire in 27 BC, the Roman Empire was built up at the heart of the Italic peninsula before it began to expand outwards. Ruled by a series of emperors as well as the Roman senate. Starting with the first emperor Octavian/Augustus, Roman Emperors had three main tasks.
The first was the most mundane – but arguably the most important: feeding and protecting the populace in Rome and throughout the empire. The emperor had to ensure a steady supply of food arriving into the city, which most managed through trade as well as local farming. Water, too, was an important aspect of an emperor’s duty. Famously managed through ingenious engineering of aqueducts, fountains, wells, and piping. Throughout much of the empire, this task was delegated to local governors and officials heading up the various regions of Rome, from Gaul to Dacia to northern Africa and Britannia.
The second was to better the capital city of Rome. It was seen as important to leave one’s mark on the Eternal City. In the centre of Rome, dozens of forums jostle for space, hundreds of columns erected to form temples of all shapes and sizes, and hundreds of bathhouses sprung up throughout the city and suburbs (contemporary catalogues of buildings logged over 800 small “thermae” or bathhouses in Rome).
And the third – and most relevant to Hadrian’s Wall – task was expansion. Roman Emperors were not only expected to maintain their empire but to expand on it. Trajan expanded into Dacia (modern-day Romania), Augustus into Egypt, and Claudius into the south of Britannia. It was Hadrian whose name is so attached to Roman Britain though, as it is he who left his mark on the greatest Roman architectural site in the UK.
Britannia was a Roman colony from 43 AD to 410 AD – all in all, about 360 years. While that might not seem like a long time when remembering that the Romans lived 2,000 years ago, you’d be surprised at how much can happen in three centuries.
For example, over the last 360 years, the USA went from little-known backwater to first its own country and then shortly afterwards, a leading world power. During that time period, we all went from travelling by sailing ships that took months to cross the ocean to zipping about the world by cars, planes and trains. And in just the last 30 years, computers went from massive machines that took ages to boot up to handheld contractions we can strap to our wrists and instantly connect no matter where we are. A lot can happen in 360 years.
Though it had been mildly explored and it was known to be a source of tin, Britannia was a wet, far-flung island at the edge of the known world. At this time in history, and for many centuries both before and after, it was the East that dominated thought, culture and trade, not the West.
When talking about Roman Britain, this chapter of history really started with Claudius. Though others had come to Britain before, he was the first to arrive and stay. Claudius landed in 43 AD, coming to the island from northern France and landing in Kent. Later, Agricola pushed the colony outwards to Caledonia, modern-day Scotland. And later this boundary was marked first by the Stanegate Road and later by Hadrian’s Wall (with an outlying Antonine Wall further north).
Britannia was a Roman colony until 410 AD, when the Romans withdrew and left the island to the Britons. Until then, though, it was a thriving colony, full of large towns like York and Colchester in the north and Bath and Gloucester in the south, as well as many others. The citizens enjoyed similar freedoms and luxuries as their Mediterranean compatriots – exotic foods, bathhouses and spas, great cities, luxurious villas, administration and education. While there was resistance from local forces, for the most part after the conquests, the colony enjoyed peace.
Julius Caesar’s earlier invasions are the most famous part of the Roman invasion of Britain. He came twice as part of the Gallic Wars, in 55 and 54 BC – the first was a failure, and the second was such overkill (628 ships, five legions and 2,000 cavalry) that the native Britons did not resist. Julius Caesar neither conquered nor furthered Roman occupation of the island and had little long-lasting effects.
Life in Britain before the Romans arrived was home to sparsely-populated lands peopled by semi-nomadic tribes. The Romans led several campaigns to drive their forces deeper into the island’s northern interior. The impetus for Roman expansion originally included Scotland, land of the Picts. The Romans actually built several smaller outposts as well as commencing a fort at Inchtuthil, just north of Perth (some 160 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall). Before Hadrian’s Wall, the Stanegate Road marked the frontier of the Roman Empire.
Hadrian’s Wall is made up of the wall itself but also the berm (a strip of land abutting the wall), a wide ditch, and the Vallum, an earthwork bank. Running for 80 Roman miles, the wall comprises a combination of turrets, milecastles and forts. There were 158 turrets (two turrets in between each milecastle), 80 milecastles – one for each Roman mile – as well as several much larger forts, which resembled frontier towns.
Constructed within the wall are a series of turrets, milecastles and of course what remains of the massive forts. In most cases, there were two turrets (towers) in between each milecastle, which like their name implies, were built roughly every Roman mile. These turrets were likely signal towers. There is a reconstructed turret at Vindolanda, giving the visitor a view of what these might once have looked like 2,000 years ago. Built using stone and mortar in a square formation, each side was about 5.8 metres or 19 feet long, accessed by a door on the southern (Roman) side. Each turret would have served as temporary shelter to the small group of soldiers assigned to that particular turret.
Milecastles were miniature forts. Built approximately one fort ever Roman mile, there were originally 80 milecastles. As each one was built by different legions from all over the Roman Empire, the milecastles all contain subtle differences. These were defended by garrisons of 12-30 men, depending on the fort and current politics. These were signal towers as well as fortified gateways controlling what went in and out of Roman Britain. Though not all built to the same exact specifications, most turrets were roughly 15m (16 feet) by 18m (20 feet) with walls 3m (10 feet) thick and up to 6 m or 20 feet high.
Forts were the largest constructions. Roman forts differed from medieval castles and wouldn’t have survived a siege. Roman forts, particularly those at Hadrian’s Wall, were essentially fortified towns.
Shaped like playing cards, the forts contained the Principia (headquarters) in the centre. This was surrounded by a basilica – and no, that’s nothing to do with a church, but was actually a covered hall. This is where the fort’s most precious goods were stored. Next door was the Praetorium, the home of the commander. It’s interesting to note that Roman architecture didn’t vary much according to region. Roman houses in Rome and Roman houses in Britain followed the same design, despite climate differences. There were also granaries, essential when trying to feed the hundreds of inhabitants. Of course, there were the quarters where the soldiers and their families lived, and some forts even had a hospital.
Outside the fort walls, the town spilled out into the countryside beyond. A Roman fort was not just a place where soldiers lived but actually functioned like a small town. Merchants, craftspeople and labourers, as well as their families, all lived and worked outside these frontier forts.
The primary focus of the wall was defence, so it’s only natural that Hadrian’s Wall was protected by soldiers. At the top of this hierarchy were the famous legionnaires: elite, highly-trained forces who were Roman citizens. A legion comprised about 5,000-6,000 men, broken down into “centuries” of 100 men (sometimes less) and led by a legate, who came from the highest of Roman classes. At the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, Rome had about 30 legions.
The other main military force were the auxiliaries (at least half of all Roman forces), who were often made up of non-citizens. There were two general types: calvary and infantry units. Broken down into cohorts, these were either 500 or 1,000 men. There were many variations of these, and different types of cohorts enjoyed different statuses and sizes. The final type of unit was the numerous, of which little is known.
Being polytheistic, the Romans were constantly adding (and subtracting!) deities from their divine lineup. The more places they conquered, the more gods and goddesses were added, many of them local deities that were ‘converted’ Roman. On Hadrian’s Wall, there was a little-known god called Antenociticus. Only a few mentions of him have been found, and he is only known at Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps he was the god of the wall? More likely he was a local god incorporated into the Roman pantheon.
Hadrian’s Wall is undoubtedly more famous, but it wasn’t always the northwestern-most extremity of Roman Britain (and the empire). In fact, for about 20 years, the Antonine Wall, located some 115 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, functioned as the outermost fortification of Britannia. It took 12 years to build but was in use for just eight further years before abandonment. This wall gets its name from the emperor who commissioned this construction, Antonius Pius. He never visited the wall, unlike Hadrian and his walled namesake. Today, very little is left of this wall, likely because it was used for so little time compared to the centuries of use at Hadrian’s Wall.
There are many archaeological sites along the wall, some of which are currently active. The most famous fort is Vindolanda, an active archaeological site for about 25 years, and takes hundreds of volunteers every year – and still, there is a waiting list.
For the rest of us who don’t need to become amateur archaeologists but want to learn more about the wall’s history, there are several archaeology sites and museums. These are listed below if you were walking from Newcastle to Solway on Tyne (as well as all of the turrets and milecastles along the way).
Today, Hadrian’s Wall is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of 19 in England. It is the largest Roman heritage site on the island and one of the most popular. Like most wall sites, certain portions gain many visitors while others remain little frequented. In recent years, there is now a path and cycleway allowing visitors multiple ways to explore Hadrian’s Wall. Learn more below.
The best way to properly experience the might and history of Hadrian’s Wall is to walk Hadrian’s Wall Path. This is a modern path built along the contours of this once-mighty fortification. Follow in the footsteps of the ancient Romans on this mighty trail, built in 2003, that takes in the very best of the Roman frontier.
The core path is about 84 miles or 135 km and is estimated to take 7-8 days. Expect terrain ranging from lush rolling farmlands to craggy hilltops and open moors. It is a National Trail, maintained by Natural England, and follows along the UNESCO World Heritage site. It is generally recognised that the middle section from Chollerford to Birdoswald is the most demanding section due to more climbing. However, in general, Hadrian’s Wall Path can be walked by anyone who is fit and appropriately equipped.
We recommend walking it from east to west for two reasons: this is the direction in which the Romans built the wall, and secondly getting to Newcastle via public transport is much easier. The whole route is waymarked. Sturdy walking boots, several layers and waterproofs (top and bottom) are essential as the path can be uneven and muddy, and the weather can be unpredictable.
Much of information here is from Newcastle University and the University of Reading.